Shanghai Detective Fiction Reflects a Changing China Qiu Xiaolong's English-language detective stories track Shanghai's transformation into a modern metropolis and how ordinary citizens are struggling to cope with the rapid pace of change.
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Shanghai Detective Fiction Reflects a Changing China

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Shanghai Detective Fiction Reflects a Changing China

Shanghai Detective Fiction Reflects a Changing China

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STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

The Brazilian scandals could easily be material for the thriller novel and so could some of the changes in China. That's exactly what Qiu Xiaolong has done. He writes detective stories - in English. And the Wall Street Journal names his first thriller among its top five political books. His readers appreciate the suspenseful story lines and also their portrait of a changing China.

NPR's Louisa Lim met the author in his birthplace - Shanghai.

LOUISA LIM: A Chinese proverb has it that every book holds a house of gold and readers of Qiu Xiaolong's gritty detective novels will find themselves transported to the bustling noisy streets of Shanghai. His hero, the poetry-loving Chief Inspector Chen, pounds the pavements as he pursues murderers, triad members, and corrupt officials.

Qiu is an accidental thriller writer. He originally made a name for himself translating T.S. Eliot's poetry and William Faulkner's novels. When he started writing his first Inspector Chen book, he didn't even realize he was writing a mystery until he'd finished.

Mr. XIAOLONG (Author): I had meant to write a book about modern or contemporary China, in which people are having a hard time adjusting themselves to the change.

LIM: As we talk, in the distance a clock tower booms out, The East is Red, a hymn of praise to Chairman Mao and a reminder of another era.

For Qiu, the turmoil of the decade-long Cultural Revolution is still the prism through which he views China. His talent for writing first emerged then, when he penned his father's self-criticism, a form of penance demanded by the radicals at the time.

His father had owned a business and was punished as a capitalist, or in the parlance of the day, a black counterrevolutionary occupation. The contrast with today's money-hungry China, where successful business people are revered inspired his third book, When Red is Black.

Mr. XIAOLONG: Now, a business owner is no longer something black, no longer something worse, to be condemned. So the ideological system, at least in that aspect, has been turned upside down. And there I cannot help thinking, if my father were alive today, what he would think. You know, I have suffered all this for nothing, or history is just like a joke, right?

LIM: The human cost of China's changing political winds is a theme that runs through his books. Qiu writes about China from St. Louis, Missouri, where he's lived for 18 years. Although he makes regular trips back to Shanghai.

The distance, he says, gives him perspective on the country's changes. It also gives him more freedom to write about the downsides of reform. His books highlight the widening gap between rich and poor, the rampant materialism unaccompanied by ethical standards, and corruption inside the Communist Party.

Mr. XIAOLONG: Everywhere, every level, you meet with different kinds of corruption. But what worries me is it's going on even more and more out of control. It's really a big problem facing China now, and it's, I cannot, like, you know, write about modern China without touching on that.

LIM: He uses Chinese television crime shows for research, as well as tapping his police contacts. The window he offers into police work in China shows a world where politics is never far below the surface. And justice is often secondary to serving the interests of the Communist Party.

Despite his criticism of China, his books have been published here, albeit with significant changes.

Mr. XIAOLONG: All my books are set in Shanghai, and there's no of course (Unintelligible) not editoring of some official above saying, no, this cannot have happened in Shanghai. So they change it to H City. As a result of that, they have to change the name of the streets, name of the restaurant. So yeah, they change a lot in essence. And some paragraphs, some sentences, they simply cut.

LIM: It's hardly surprising, since Qiu's subject matter touching upon human trafficking, the misbehavior of senior leaders' children, and the ideological vacuum at the heart of China today.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said a man of virtue must speak out, and Qiu Xiaolong has chosen detective thrillers as his way of doing just that.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can read an excerpt from Qiu Xiaolong's second book, A Loyal Character Dancer, at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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